By Omoh Gabriel
The Minister of Aviation deserves public applause for just one thing- mustering the courage to expose a long standing deal between the affluence bureaucrats in government and the British Airways, BA. Those familiar with the industry have confirmed that for a very long time, British Airways has been doing under hand business of giving complimentary tickets to top civil servants and their siblings in favour of their daily patronage of flying first and business class. Many top government functionaries in Nigeria are well aware of this deal. Because it is in their favour, they kept quite about it. The management of British Airways seeing the business opportunity this offers them cashed in on it.
The big question is where else in Africa or Europe does BA give complimentary tickets to top government functionaries and their siblings and why? Does the airline give such in Britain? Is this not another form of bribery which many developed economies have barred their businesses from partaking in? How legitimate is what BA is doing? Is BA not compromising the system by this practice? Perhaps knowing what is involved that those who should talk, especially the civil servants in the Aviation industry, who are beneficiaries of the largesse the British Airways get from charging higher for first class and business class to recoup what they give out as complimentary tickets keep quite thus visiting the sins of a few privileged on the generality of the populace who fly BA.
It is a racket that has survived several governments in the country. It will outlive the Jonathan’s administration, no doubt. Why and how did the Minister discover the anomaly? Was she briefed by officials of the Ministry or is it that someone somewhere is aggrieved with the arrangement and want a redress of the situation to his/her favour? Unfortunately, the Minister has not come out with these details. What brought about this issue? Definitely, there is something wrong somewhere. Something must have brought this out. For the Minister to say, ‘oh you must pay us’ suggest that somebody somewhere is trying to use the machinery of government to do something in his/her favour.
A matter like this ordinarily should be approached with maturity. This would have meant that approaching BA ought not to have being in the public domain for now. Nigeria and Britain have been together for years, with very strong ties, and a few functionaries on both sides should not be allowed to commit class atrocity and then visit it on the two countries. Nigeria has something to protect. Today in Britain, Nigerians residing there are almost about 2 million citizens. Provoking a diplomatic row will not be in the best interest of both countries.
The racket that is going on between top civil servants, other government functionaries and BA officials is because it is easier for them to board BA to London overnight and return to their desk the following day. Many connive with the Airline to ensure that top government functionaries in Nigeria fly BA in first and business class for that matter. Because it is government funds being used, this class goes in and out of London at will.
It has become a lucrative business for the Airline. To compensate them for making it possible for government functionaries to fly first or business class, complimentary tickets are issued to them or their siblings. That is why the talk is about First class and business class and certainly, nobody is talking about the economy. If there is need for air fare review, will it not be for all classes of fare?
It seems odd that the Minister did not get it right in comparing the airline fare in Nigeria with what they charge in Ghana. It is only in exceptional cases that the government of Ghana approves first class or business class ticket for its serving officials. Most travel economy. In most part of the world, government functionaries travel economy class to preserve public funds. BA most times does not have the required passengers in this class flying out of Ghana and in order to encourage them the airline reduces its charge in order not to lose out completely.
So comparing fares charged in Ghana to Nigeria is not the issue as no Ghanaian official will be given first class to travel out of Ghana; they fly economy. The demand by the Nigeria Authority is because it is easy for them to go to London in the night by 11: PM, finish their private business in the morning and return to Abuja by 5:00 PM the following day without even their wives knowing they went to London. Even if this class of Nigerians wants first class as usual, are they not supposed to pay from their pockets? Because they want to go to London to transact private business overnight using government funds and do not want anybody to know they were out of the country, is that enough reason for disturbing the nation and scattering an existing relationship between Nigeria and Britain under the pretense of acting in the best interest of Nigeria. If they are seeking after the welfare of Nigerians, why are they not also talking about the economy tickets issued by the same airline?
The Minister should know that those who sold the idea to her are fighting for their selfish interest and that the money they spend on most of the tickets is from government purse. They are not the ones paying from their pocket. Even if they pay from their pockets, they just sneak out of the country and return in the morning. They are hurting because it is too expensive. What about the nation they are short changing by this act?
Besides, there are alternatives. If BA becomes too expensive, other airlines that are cheaper in their offerings are there. There are Nigerians who now fly Emirates to London via Dubai; there are those who fly Air France to London via Paris, there are those who fly Lufthansa via Frankfurt. These airlines have cheaper first class and business class offers. If not for the simple reason they find it easier and convenient to sneak out of the country through BA, there are alternatives. If you are flying Emirate, you have opportunity to rest in a hotel free, before going to London. That is why today Emirate is having the crowd that it is having and its tickets are cheaper. There is also Qatar Airline; it all depends on how any Nigerians want it. If you want to go six hours and come back the next day, fine. Many Nigerians have on their own stopped flying BA long time ago for the reasons the Minister has stated.
The high ticket issue is a smoke screen for those who want a national carrier which many in the aviation industry have described as the pending fraud. Who are those pushing for a national carrier? Where is the infrastructure to run a national carrier? Is the federal government going to buy back the properties of Nigeria Airways sold for peanuts just some years back and from whom? How did the Minister come about the idea of a national carrier? Is somebody trying to push himself in that line because he thinks that he cannot survive the airline business and wants to sell his holding to government in order to turn his airline into a national carrier? At what price will the government buy back what it sold out? Is this another attempt to rip the nation off? Are these not the same people that connived to destroy the Nigerian Airways and bought its property for peanuts? Is it not a curious thing that no private individual was supposed to own any property within the airport and you can only rent or you pay a ground rent, but the property of Nigeria Airways was sold for less than one billion to whoever wanted? Nigerians are watching how all of this will play out